— Publication en ligne
Cine-Repetitions
by Raymond Bellour [EN]


Publié le


Version française

In this article I will attempt to outline the various meanings of the word repetition in the specific area of film (films) and of cinema. Repetition as a concept is both too general and yet very precise, which is its strength. I shall examine how it activates the different interwoven levels of experience presiding over the production, the products themselves and the understanding of cinema.

a) External repetition 1. A film, at any rate a fiction film, like a play or a piece of music, is rehearsed: the actors rehearse the scene, the shot to be filmed. But these rehearsals (repetitions) do not aim to achieve an ideal performance through a process of perfection, to be reworked from the basis of that work itself. They aim to achieve a fixing, involving a kind of repetition, which duplicates that of the act or the object represented; the repetitions vary during shooting. Firstly they vary in number, according to the obsession and the style of the filmmaker, and according to the techniques and the nature of the subject being filmed. This, of course, concerns the fiction film. In documentaries there are with- out doubt usually at least two takes (if only for ‘safety’). But mostly each of these takes has a specific status, already differentiated from the other: indeed one approaches the limit fascinating when you get there – where the thing filmed cannot be repeated, since it is a real event to which the camera is bearing witness. The repetition of space, then, is substituted very often for a repetition of time: if it is known and anticipated, the unique event is simultaneously filmed by several cameras which repeat each other without ever being able to duplicate one another absolutely. Nevertheless, the repetitions of the takes are just as variable in their nature: as much by their numerous paradigms, willingly or unwillingly put into play (framing, lighting, etcetera) as by these more or less subtle variations of the same thing which, in the fiction film, strive to catch the actor’s expression in order to hold that discontinuous moment of eternity that will be indelibly fixed in the thread (film) of representation.

b) External repetition 2. Contrary to the theatrical or musical production, whose repetitions vary with each performance, filmic representation is constituted by a printed text, the identity of which, ideally, is repeated absolutely unchanged 11. I have already approached this problem but from another viewpoint in ‘The Unattainable Text’, Screen Autumn 1975, Ca,v16 n3.. This identity is not a pure one. The quality of the print of a film varies according to the conditions under which a print is struck; in particular it is subject to permanent deterioration, which makes its reproduction the very moment of its material destruction. Screening conditions, on the other hand, are in themselves infinitely variable: from the slight variations between cinemas within one distribution circuit, to the massive variations involved in the transition from one format to another (35mm, 16mm, super 8) or even more clearly through a transformation of the medium and of certain of the material conditions of the cinematic apparatus, as is the case with films shown on television. Yet through these variations, however great they may be and which on television even go so far as to jeopardise the characteristic tones of the image, an obstinate identity is maintained: that of a text, which in a sense is all the more elusive for being fixed, as that of a book, but moreover frozen, as long as one does not tamper with its ‘mystery’ in the indefensible repetition of it unfolding.

c) Internal repetition 1. Repetition is internal when it pertains to the very body of the film, to its most elementary and paradoxical level: that of the single frame 22.See Sylvie Pierre, “Élements pour une theorie du photogramme”, Cahiers du Cinéma, 226-227, Jan-Feb 1971..
It is elementary because it is not seen: the speed at which the film is projected is designed to mask this mechanical repetition, to efface its silent weave. Only the editing table, the actual handling of the film, allows one to experience its reality. An endless repetition, twenty-four times per second. But this repetition is, of course, paradoxical. Once on the editing table or on the re-winding table, when the film is severed from its unfolding-process, one thing becomes obvious straight away: the perpetual oscillation, from one frame to another, between a minute or zero difference and a more marked difference. Let us imagine a static shot of a landscape, where nothing or almost nothing moves, or a shot of a woman sitting, or of a man sleeping. And inversely, let us imagine a character running and moving out of shot; in the last but one frame, one can still see him almost from the chest upwards; in the last frame, one sees nothing but a foot, and the same for a rapid camera movement significantly altering the framing. Through the smallest to the largest differences between photograms, the repetition of the successive frames thus carries the coming into being of the film. But these differences are never that large except in films which play on visual acceleration and ‘denaturalise’ the unfolding process, even going so far as to have a different shot for every frame in the second part of T-WO-MEN by Werner Nekes.

d) Internal repetition 2.The second internal repetition, which is also cinematic because it involves specific codes, and yet is already filmic because it determines more or less the development of the textual system, pertains to that fundamental form of cinematic language, very often invoked but so seldom studied: alternation.

By alternation I mean a structure of opposition between two terms, which develops through the return of either one or both terms according to a process of more or less limited expansion: a/b/a’, a/b/a’/b’/, and so on. This principle of alternation — which pertains to the fundamental phenomenon of the separation and succession of shots so rightly defined by Malraux as the formative movement of cinematic language – can be subdivided according to the following codic specifications, of which it regulates the course and articulates the discourse:
– point of view, in its widest and richest sense, founded on a toing and froing between the subject and the object of his vision 33. The different possibilities of the point-of-view shot have been catalogued by Edward Branigan in “Formal Permutations of the Point-of-View Shot”, Screen, Autumn 1975 vl6 n3..
– the various forms of shot-reverse-shot that regulate so many filmic exchanges.
– the scales of framing, as soon as they are somewhat systematised, by a to-and-fro process between the motifs they circumscribe.
– the opposition between a static shot and a moving shot, which lends itself to the same type of formalisation.
– the narrative distributions between shots in the syntagmatic types of the alternated syntagm and the parallel syntagm, or better still, following the three types (alternating, alternated, parallel) that Metz had first distinguished in his first version of the ‘Grande Syntagmatique’ 44. La Grande Syntagmatique du film narratif, Communications, n8 1966..

One can imagine other levels of structuring which, in relation to a more or less specific generalisation of the principle of alternation, are comparable to this or that codic level, depending on a given narrative, expressive or discursive inflection (in particular, between the different levels of matters of expression and the matters of the image). In fact, it is necessary to take into account that these levels never cease to combine and to overlap in various ways and at each moment in any given filmic text. On this point I refer the reader to the analyses where, without insisting upon it, I have underlined the plurality of combination, which now seems to me to stem from a unitary and diversified principle. 55.The texts forming the third part of my book, L’Analyse du film, Éditions Albatros, Paris, 1979, brings to the fore, although without really commenting upon them in their own right, the multiple structures of alteration operating in classical American cinema. See in particular the section Analyser/segmenter where I indicate the need to come back to this whole question which has been insufficiently discussed in remarks by Metz in Les Essais sur la signification au cinéma, Klincksieck, Paris 1968, especially footnote 9, pl64. The comments offered here on this point are naturally very brief in so far as the principle of alternation is only envisaged vis a vis the general perspective opened up by the problematic of repetition.. One could object, of course, that what is at stake in the variation between the terms a, a’, a », etc in each of the formal operations I mentioned, is a ‘return to’ rather than a repetition properly speaking. This because the fragmentation induced by the alternation in most cases and in its own specific ways can be regarded as in a sense merely serving the progression of the narrative by substituting itself to varying degrees for the spatial and spatio-temporal linearity of the representation. But such an objection would misunderstand the force of such a choice which makes that ‘return’ into a principle, and founds the narrative on an ordered return of its elements: a particular repetition, determined by syntagmatic proximity, the serialisation of its elements into strings. It would also overlook the fundamental tension between difference and equivalence which regulates this serial structuring: it pertains largely to the combination of levels of alternation, to the tendency of some of them (rather more those levels that stem from specific codes within the shot formation) to form themselves into more or less purely reiterative instances, whereas others (for instance, the syntagmatic forms properly linked to the diegesis) integrate of their own accord the difference of the narrative into their reiterative progression. 66. At this level one ought to distinguish between chronological forms (alternated) and non-chronological forms (parallel) of syntagmatic alternation, which are in a completely different situation with regard to the narrative and its repetition: the first are necessarily in a relation of differential continuity, the others in a hazardous relation which can range from pure repetition (the same image) to maximum separation (two completely different images of the same reality, of the same concept).. In most if not all films, this renewed tension does indeed set up a unique order of repetition, which structures the textual expansion through the interaction of forms specifically linked to the formation of the narrative into images. (When there is a narrative: but the avant-garde or experimental films in this respect, according to their peculiar modes involving disruption or loss of chronology, destruction of the representation, and so on, most often only carry to an extreme the relations between difference and equivalence, divergence and repetition, by making serial structuring the fundamental condition of textual expansion).

e) Internal repetition 3. This is strictly speaking, textual repetition. This form of repetition is no longer specifically determined by the pressure of a specific code, even if it is supported by it. One of its main instruments is. the repetition of codes by a process of mise-en-abyme [a Chinese-box construction] a spectacular construction, constituting the fundamental condition of the textuality of the filmic system: its striking ability to produce the effect of volume. Textual repetition is characterised first and foremost by the fact that its level continually changes, displaces itself, because it en- compasses all levels, and everything feeds into it: a narrative segment, a gesture, a sound, a frame, a colour, an exchange of sentences, a decor, an action, a camera movement, or any of them together. A particular regime of textual repetition is, of course, specific to each individual system, contributing, with its own multiple modes, to defining the system’s status with regard to the fiction – or the non-fiction – the arrangement of which it organises to eminently variable degrees. This singularity – peculiar to each system – is ordered of its own accord, through the inter- locking of relatively definable series, which correspond to as many criteria (authors, genre, period, studios, etcetera) within more or less homogeneous cultural and stylistic spaces, most often corresponding to national boundaries.
Thus from Lotte Eisner’s works, it would be possible to infer a certain operation of repetition – narrative, thematised, figurative, compositional – in classical German cinema 77. This extension of perspective would allow one to specify two further secondary meanings (for they do indeed have a lesser degree of specificity), by which the word ‘repetition’ concerns the cinema, this time on a strictly intertextual level. Indeed film repeats what a given culture offers. A particularly good example is the way that the German cinema can be seen to have transformed the data of the great anthropological culture of the nineteenth century (stories, tales, tableaux, architectures, philosophical myths) in the filmic space. On the other hand, film repeats itself with its own improvements and successes: the ‘remake’ is triumphant, as in the classical theatre (consider its success in Hollywood). In fact, to a large extent the two phenomena interact: adaptations, inter- textual repetitions, are par excellence the subject of a remake, of its variation from one period to another, from one country to another..
In other respects, the various analyses devoted to several classical American films over the years (Thierry Kuntzel, Stephen Heath, the works of Cahiers du Cinéma, my own analyses, and so on) represent a real contextual evaluation of the status of repetition. I myself have insisted on three determinants, the conjunction of which seems to me, because it has been confirmed on many occasions, to out- line a type of global apparatus by which the narrative in the classical American cinema, is given as a scenography of repetition.
– Firstly there are the effects of micro-repetition which, on the basis of a process of serial repetition, structure the minor units (the shots) of the narrative within most of its major units (segments and fragments).
– Secondly, there are the effects of macro-repetition (often consisting of micro-repetitions at a remove) which assign to the space of the film the form of a trajectory at once progressive and circular; between a first event and a second one repeating it. This is achieved by an often very subtle distortion of the relations between story and narrative (as understood by Genette) 88.“story, the signified or narrative content (even if this content is . . . poor in dramatic intensity or intensity of action), narrative, strictly speaking the signifier uttered, discourse or narrative discourse itself”, Genette, Figures III, Seuil, Paris 1972, p72., which tends to duplicate the effect of repetition on to itself in order to link the two given events in the thread of the narrative to anterior event (childhood, the past, History) which, being outside the narrative at the beginning of the reconstructed story, possesses its immemorial meaning and its truth.
– Thirdly there is the way resolution (positive, negative) acts on these effects of macro-repetition and circumscribes the subject of the narrative like the differential circularity between beginning and end. The narrative is repeated because it is being resolved. This principle, regulating the narrative’s fate, owes its strength largely to the way in which the narrative never ceases by segments, by fragments, to be resolved on to itself, as it were, by partial effects of symmetry, of circularity and compression. These constitute so many successive micro-resolutions where the major resolution of the narrative seems to be echoed and reflected following an effect of continuous-discontinuous reverberations, through an interlocking mechanism of the whole back with the part. Outlining this operation of repetition and its difference resolved in the psycho-analytical perspective into which it is inscribed, this is what I have designated by the phrase blocage symbolique.
Consider also how in other ways repetition works as an explicit principle in films which it shapes entirely from beginning to end. At the opposite pole of avant-garde cinema, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera develops serial repetition to a kind of generalised exasperation of alternation, recentred around the metaphor of cinema which it underpins all the better for being one of its fundamental aspects; in Werner Nekes’ T-WO-MEN, repetition saturates the narrative space, endlessly super-imposing story and narrative, by a perpetual return of the fiction to its pure beginning, and through a disintegration of the representative speed, widely differentiating the effects of the serial structuring, the elements of which appear to condense into perceptual blocks, achieving a sort of pure repetition.

f) External repetition 3. This last repetition is that of cinema itself. It serves to designate, beyond any given film, what each film aims at through the apparatus that permits it: in the regulated order of the spectacle, the return of an immemorial and everyday state which the subject experiences in his dreams, and for which the cinematic apparatus renews the desire 99. See JL Baudry “Le dispositif”; C Metz “Le film de fiction et son spectateur”, in Communications n23, 1975..
This repetition depending on a set of material and meta-psychological conditions, will be all the more active when the film itself takes on not the representation — which would be impossible — but the fictionalisation of that repetition through its ‘work’, sometimes so close to the work of dreams, with the psychic-figural operations and the diegesis indissolubly linked. 1010. See Thierry Kuntzel, ‘Le travail du film’, Communications nl9, 1972; ‘Le travail du film, 2’, Communications n23, 1975 . This principle holds for certain experimental films which come exceedingly close to the conditions of existence the filmic-cinematic process (Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia, Michael Snow’s Wavelength) as well as for certain classical narrative films, especially American, where the mise-en-abyme or specular construction of the cinematic apparatus links all at once the textualised network of cine-repetitions.

In conclusion I would like to borrow a remarkable example (here barely outlined) taken from Thierry Kuntzel’s unpublished work on the ‘scene of repetition’ in King Kong. On the bridge of the ship, the film-maker of the diegesis, Denham, is conducting rehearsals with Ann, the star. The alternated repetition of shot: reverse-shot between the two of them ensures the textual expansion which includes, as its necessary ingredient, shots of the spectators watching the scene. One can easily recognise them as representing the spectators of the fiction film being woven before our very eyes. The shot: reverse-shot system thus renews all the more what it never ceases to mime through the play that turns on identifications: the mirror effect peculiar to the cinematic apparatus, upon which Metz, and earlier Baudry, have so rightly insisted. 1111. JL Baudry, ‘EfTets ideologiques de l’appareil de base’, Cinethique, n7-8, 1970; C Metz ‘The Imaginary Signifier’, Screen Summer 1975, vl6 n2. . In this scene Ann repeats a cry which, of course, is only meaningful because it is to be repeated again. Later in the forest, when Ann is tied to a stake on the altar, she is under the eyes of the tribe, in a very similar setting, except that the camera is not present. But, as it were, in the place of the camera and of the film-maker – providing the narrative with the equivalent of the shooting of an otherwise missing film – King Kong appears, provoking the full repetition of the cry: the cry, which is now the woman’s real cry, was expected, remembered, and almost uttered by the viewer. The latter, of course, knows that he is ‘at the cinema’ as Metz says. Yet, in the shadow of that knowledge, the film does indeed repeat his own dream, his desire to dream. Similarly, by repeating itself the dream becomes metamorphosed to fulfil the phantasy (of the spectator, of the heroine, and of the mise-en-scène which lends itself to them in the institution and the society it serves) and from there to model itself on its most insistent form: desire as repetition, the desire of repetition.

Raymond Bellour
Translation by Kari Hanet
First edition: Raymond Bellour, “Cine-Repetitions”, Screen n°2 (Summer 1979): 65-72

References   [ + ]